Inside a comfortable office located just outside the shadow of the massive Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) care facility sits Audra Wilford, founder of the MaxLove Project. The Orange-based charity works to increase the quality of life and reduce the health risks of all children fighting cancer in treatment and beyond. Since the foundation started in 2011, countless families in multiple countries have received help not only in navigating the path toward remission, but also in thriving long after they experience one of the most difficult times imaginable.
“The most important thing for us is to get the message out that we, as a community, can be more empowered to help patients and their families,” Wilford says. “Our nonprofit is focused on wellness using evidence-based nutrition to improve the quality of life for childhood-cancer survivors.”
She and her husband, Justin, have worked tirelessly through their MaxLove Project for nearly eight years to bring hope to people who are faced with very few options after a child is diagnosed. “Right now in the U.S., over 420,000 childhood cancer survivors are alive because of advancements in treatment and screening,” Wilford says. “We are focused on mitigating the overwhelming amount of statistics that come with survivorship, meaning that the same treatments that save these children’s lives also present challenges and threaten to compromise their lives later on.”
Wilford has become an anchor for families facing cancer. The nonprofit was named for her son Max, who was diagnosed in 2011 with mixed-grade brain stem glioma, a common type of brain cancer that requires chemotherapy and a difficult, sometimes fatal partial resection surgery. The then-5-year-old was rushed to CHOC, where surgeons partially removed a tumor. As the boy spent three weeks in recovery, his parents decided to make his journey toward survival their full-time focus. Consulting with doctors, researchers and other cancer survivors, they began to look into other factors, besides standard treatment, that could improve Max’s quality of life as well as help him with functioning, pain levels and sleep patterns—whatever could improve his chances of survivorship.
The regimen of comprehensive therapies they came up with for their son included a year and a half of chemotherapy sessions, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine and physical therapy. Wilford is convinced that without each aspect, Max would not have achieved the superior quality of life and continued health he enjoys today. Now 14, he is more likely to be seen on his bicycle than in a treatment center.
Max’s recovery was the catalyst for his parents to start the MaxLove Project. “One of the things that has defined MaxLove Project is our relationship with physicians, doctors and the hospitals we work with,” Wilford explains. “We fill a void in health care that isn’t the business of the hospital. Their job is to save lives, which isn’t necessarily synonymous with quality of life. Our work is complementary to what these doctors are doing to eradicate the cancer inside of someone’s body.
“When it comes to the diet, nutrition and wellness practices we provide, it’s all about building bridges between treatment and ongoing survivorship,” she continues. “I believe the doctors we work with see it that way as well.”
Among the medical advances MaxLove Project focuses on is the benefits of safe, lab-tested cannabis, which can change a child’s life during such a difficult time. “This year, we decided it was time to lend our voice to aid those in the fight toward cannabis advocacy,” Wilford says. “It’s time for us to use our unique approach because we are wellness-based. This isn’t about just this plant; this is about creating a healthy routine, and one small facet of a larger plan is what this medicine has the potential to do.”
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Though the existence of the cannabis plant has caused panic, outrage and prison sentences throughout history, Wilford has found it also has the ability to provide families with yet another holistic tool in the fight against cancer.
However, a scan of the MaxLove Project website shows very few traces of any cannabis-related material. That’s deliberate. Considering the lack of federal support for the use of cannabis as a medical option, starting out as a staunch supporter would have likely compromised the legitimacy of the nonprofit. Yet Wilford sees more people opening up to the idea. As for any lingering stigma, she was already prepared for the critics thanks to having been battle-tested through MaxLove Project’s stand on foods.
“Believe it or not, when we first started, our Culinary Medicine Program was controversial,” Wilford says. “People would look at us and say, ‘You think food matters?’ And once we smoothed that over, we started talking about a ketogenic diet, which focuses on eating foods that are high-fat and low-carb. Even that was contentious.”
For children and their families enduring the long road toward remission, health-care costs present yet another obstacle in their path. MaxLove Project works with a highly skilled, diverse group of doctors, nurses, dietitians, chefs, farmers and integrative-medicine practitioners to offer free classes on everything from dietary options to cooking techniques that will benefit not only the child whose life is at risk, but also the entire family in a way that leaves a lasting effect. “Cancer affects everyone, regardless of income,” Wilford says. “There are families in central Santa Ana, where we see a 40 percent obesity rate, with their grandmothers or great-grandmothers still living at home and teaching them how to make food that is real. You’ll see these amazing broths and all kinds of therapeutic foods.
“Then there’s the mom who lives in Coto de Caza, and she is three generations into not cooking,” she continues. “That family’s cabinets are filled with Go-Gurts, Fritos and Capri Suns. One of the things we work on with families is to identify their health goals; with cancer, it’s never a ‘blanket statement’ or a one-size-fits-all solution. If we were able to eradicate obesity today, it would take three generations of children being born for us to see certain genetic predispositions disappear from our bodies.”
For families on shoestring budgets, Wilford recommends focusing on whole foods—items such as fresh vegetables, whole grains and proteins that are low in sodium—rather than spending more on organically grown items. “It may seem counterintuitive, but if you are in the middle of fighting for your life against an active disease, an organic Pop-Tart is not going to help save you,” Wilford points out. “When one of our oncologists contacts us, one of the first things we provide to families, besides our countless outreach programs, is our bone broth.”
The Broth Bank, supported by Santa Ana’s Electric City Butcher, offers families the sustenance free of charge. The broth replenishes the minerals a body desperately needs after the rigors of a chemotherapy session, and Wilford has seen firsthand how invigorating it is for the families to experience something as simple as a home-cooked meal.
“It is incredible to see the quality of life these children have achieved through acupuncture, dietary changes and other holistic paths that our foundation is able to offer,” she says. “When you look at all of these things together, what we are talking about is in our heritage; we, as a society, are starting to learn that this is all medicine that is thousands of years old. It’s very powerful that we are no longer trusting convenience; we need to get back into the kitchen!”
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Deep inside Santa Ana’s “Green Zone,” the mostly industrial area that houses the majority of Orange County’s legal cannabis dispensaries, is Kannabis Works. Founder and CEO Jason Lilly smiles as he recalls the events that led to him connecting with the MaxLove Project.
“We spent three years dealing with all the bureaucracy and legalities of opening Kannabis Works,” Lilly explains. “During that time, we pivoted our business somewhat and opened a wellness center that was more of a one-on-one doctor/patient-style environment in Irvine. We partnered with a company in Northern California, and we were able to provide high-quality oils and consultations to families from all over the nation in need of this type of care.”
The dispensary, which opened its doors to the public in February 2018, has been paving its own path in advancing the idea that cannabis can be a helpful addition to the fight against cancer. “Cannabis is not the end-all to everything,” Lilly concedes, “but it can provide help for people during treatment and beyond. That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to work with MaxLove; they’re focused on a much-larger picture.”
In the Kannabis Works showroom, shelves and tables display more topicals and vaporizer products than actual flowers, and you aren’t likely to see any edibles that resemble the sour, sugary candy that line the aisles of your local convenience store.
Shelly McKay, Kannabis Works’ health-and-wellness director, believes it’s the dispensary’s duty to the community to provide safe holistic solutions to the cancer epidemic in the U.S. and, hopefully, the rest of the world. “There’s such an unregulated market right now,” McKay says. “From seed to sale, we know that our products are safe and have gone through rigorous testing to ensure the quality of care we bring to our clients. We only bring in clean product.”
That is especially true, McKay notes, when it comes to young cancer patients. “It’s important for a child that is undergoing these treatments, when they have an immunocompromised system, that they receive this clean medicine,” she adds.
Lilly interjects: “When you look at what we, as a company, are doing right now, this represents what the medical-cannabis industry should look like. When medical cannabis became legal, this is what the voters had envisioned: not only a facility that provides safe access to cannabis, but also a place that strives to meet a level of care that many will never experience.”
It’s clear Kannabis Works sought to stand out from the dime-a-dozen dispensaries that sprouted up after California voters approved Proposition 64 in 2016. “We shop for certain formulations, not only ratios,” McKay says. “When you’re considering what medicine is right for you, there isn’t a ‘cure all’ strain or product that will work for everyone.”
Asked what consumers should look for when researching their own needs, she warns, “It has very little to do with whether or not the plants’ genetics fall into the traditional categories of indica or sativa. What we look at, besides the chemovars [the varied chemical composition of a particular plant based on its growing conditions], is the technique used for extraction.”
For consumers comparing one concentrate to the seemingly endless supply of new products flowing into dispensaries daily, a CO2 extraction—which is a method that removes solid matter, leaving only the cannabinoids behind—may sound healthier than its ethanol counterpart. But this isn’t necessarily true; because of a chemical reaction, the terpenes (organic compounds found in the essential oils of plants) end up getting lost or muddied during the extraction process. This forces manufacturers to add their own terpene profiles in a Frankenstein-like manner that ends up tasting overproduced and unnatural. “Ultimately, we really shop for reputable producers,” McKay says. “When we recommend something to a patient, it’s because we believe in its ability to help them specifically. That’s why we have such a wide variety of products to pull from. The interesting thing is that, for most of the companies that are packaged and marketed as more medicinally focused, they may not do as well in a traditional dispensary.”
Adds Lilly, “Like us, these companies don’t fit into the traditional mold, and oftentimes, their product requires a bit more attention and guidance in order to see the advantages from using it. That’s where we fit in.”
Lilly and McKay don’t just talk the talk. In addition to dealing with the day-to-day rigors of owning a small business, they provide outreach programs to veterans, seniors and families who are trying to explore every option when it comes to their mental and physical well-being through Wellness Works, which focuses on holistic approaches to health care and offers multiple community-outreach classes on dietary planning and using cannabis as a medicine. The program, which operates out of a room just beyond the state-of-the-art storefront, also provides a platform for experts to give insight to people who are struggling with the mental and physical health issues that go along with surviving a traumatic event.
“Wellness Works is a company that doesn’t touch the plant, so we have a lot more freedom with what we can do in that room, as opposed to the restrictions of operating a licensed dispensary,” Lilly explains. “The consulting and education side of it is really the foundation of what we, as a company, aim to accomplish.”
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Inside the MaxLove Project’s humble offices, I’m reminded that it works with local businesses, both in and out of the cannabis industry, to raise not only awareness, but also the monetary funds to fuel their community efforts and provide the care that sick children and their families desperately need. For example, the nonprofit partnered with dozens of companies, including Cannalysis and Chapman Crafted Beer, for a charity golf event at the Aliso Viejo Country Club in April.
There’s also the Ohana Project, a 12-week course rigorously designed and studied by a team of highly regarded pediatric clinicians (including Dr. Ruth McCarty, the clinical director of Chinese medicine and acupuncture at CHOC) that targets whole-family health and is built on connecting cancer patients with one another, recognizing that everyone affected by childhood cancer is a part of one big family.
“Anyone that questions the idea of cannabis as a medicine for our families should see some of the children that we’ve had coming through here,” Wilford says. “Some of them are unable to walk; most of them have trouble with their eating habits and sleep patterns, which is essential to change when they’re fighting disease. Once we start them on cannabis, we quickly see results. These kids are able to eat and sleep, which helps them gain strength, and pretty soon, they’re walking again.”
She lets out a hopeful sigh and adds, “It’s that process of not only improving quality of life, but also improving the strength and well-being for patients as a cumulative routine that ends up providing the necessary tools these children need to survive. Coming out of treatment, the body is heavily disempowered, and your immune system has been destroyed. Following the evidence we provide can mean a world of difference to these children in such a fragile state. We are trying to raise the bar.”
Jefferson Matthew VanBilliard is a leo that enjoys all things cannabis and is just trying his best. He let us know that although the desert will always be his home you can find him on Fourth St. in Santa Ana battle rapping teenagers or at the local high school where he coaches girls varsity volleyball without anyone’s permission.